Flags can be found everywhere. At schools, hotels, airports, car lots, sporting events, parades, on toothpicks…and these don’t even include official government or diplomatic events.
There are flags for nations, states, cities, teams, organizations, political causes, and more, each with their own significance. There are so many variables involved in how we display flags that it is easy to understand why there are many questions about the proper way to place them.
It is with these things that men are led.Napoleon Bonaparte
In fact, flags are among the top five protocol subjects we at Garza Protocol get questions about: How do you properly display the U.S. flag? In what order should flags of other countries be positioned? When do you fly flags at half staff?, to list just a few.
Vexillology is the study of flags and while you do not need to be a vexillologist to be successful in the global arena, a basic understanding of the core rules is very useful. Remember always that flags are powerful symbols of our ideas, hopes, history, and dreams, deserving of reverential, careful treatment. Below are some basic rules that address most flag display scenarios.
If you encounter a more complicated situation, or one that is particularly sensitive you would do well to research the flag protocol for the specific jurisdiction, country, or culture, and follow any related laws and local traditions, to respect both the people and their flag. We at Garza Protocol would also be happy to help you with your flag questions. For assistance, contact us at email@example.com.
Flags, like people, have rank, and should be displayed in order corresponding to their rank. For example: Country, then State, then City, then Organization, then Society.
The position of honor, usually “to its own right,” is granted to the host country’s flag*. To simplify, this means to the observer’s left as he faces the stage or building, as shown in the photos above. In the U.S., when displaying flags of several nations, the U.S. flag would be first as also shown above.
*The photo above, was taken at the embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, D.C. Consulates, embassies and official residences are considered foreign soil, so the host country flag is now that of the U.A.E., and it may hold the position of honor.
Country flags are displayed in alphabetical order following the host country flag. In the U.S. you would use the country’s conventional short-form English name. For example, the flag of the People’s Republic of China would be positioned with the “c” countries for China and not with the “p” countries for People.
This photo was taken at a music venue in Michigan. While including the country’s name under the corresponding flag is a nice touch, the flags are not displayed according to protocol. When asked, no one seemed to know how the order was determined. The basic rules of flag display are straightforward, but many people are not aware of them, and may incorrectly position the flags. Even when the intention is good, such as a desire to honor people and promote shared ties, improper flag displays risks causing offense. For example, a business might want to recognize the countries it does business with or where it has offices and decide to put the flags in chronological order by when they started doing business there, a good idea with bad execution. Likewise, a university might want to highlight the countries from which their international students come or a hospital might want to recognize the countries of its patients. All of these are excellent ideas, but to avoid misunderstandings it is best to follow protocol, and display flags in the proper order.
When flags of two or more nations are displayed, they should be of comparable size and quality.
This photo shows a U.S. flag with fringe and an eagle on top. The fringe on the U.S. flag is optional and as noted below there is no law regarding finials*. Other countries also have flags that can be enhanced with fringe but that is not required. Some may also have rules or guidelines regarding finials. Since the U.S. flag above is being displayed with flags of other nations it would be more appropriate to use the traditional U.S. flag without the fringe and the same finial as the other country flags.
*Note: According to the federal law relating to the display of the U.S. flag and Ornaments on Flag Staffs and Fringes on Flags, the Flag Code is silent as to ornaments (finials) for flagstaffs. We know of no law or regulation which restricts the use of a finial on the staff. The eagle finial is used not only by the President, the Vice-President, and many other federal agencies, but also by many civilian organizations and private citizens. The selection of the type finial used is a matter of preference of the individual or organization.
The placing of a fringe on the flag is optional with the person or organization, and no act of Congress or Executive Order either requires or prohibits the practice. Fringe is used on indoor flags only, as fringe on flags used outdoors would deteriorate rapidly. The fringe on a flag is considered an “honorable enrichment only” and its official use by the Army dates from 1895.
Country flags should be flown from separate staffs or poles of the same height with the same finials, at the same level.
Some international organizations like NATO, the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee have different protocols for the display of country flags. Always consult the corresponding organization, research its practices, and apply them as appropriate.
The U.S. Flag Code states that nothing in the code shall make unlawful the continuance of the practice heretofore followed of displaying the flag of the United Nations in a position of superior prominence or honor, and other national flags in positions of equal prominence or honor, with that of the flag of the United States at the headquarters of the United Nations.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I display more than one flag on the same pole?
It depends on the flags. In the U.S. you can fly a state flag and an organization’s flag on the same pole as the U.S. flag. The order is determined by rank: country, state, city, organization (see Rule 1). In this situation, the U.S. flag would be flown on top, followed by the state flag with the organization flag at the bottom as shown below.
Note: Country flags must be on separate poles (see Rule 5) and international usage forbids the display of the flag of one nation above that of another nation in time of peace.
How do you properly display flags when the center pole is higher?
This photo was taken at an Italian restaurant in Ohio. While the intention was good, to honor the Italian ancestry of the owner and many of the restaurant patrons, the flags are incorrectly displayed. In this arrangement you should not display another country’s flag since the flag poles are not of the same height which means the Italian flag is lower than the U.S. which international usage does not allow.
This photo was taken at an Italian restaurant in Ohio. While the intention was good, to honor the Italian ancestry of the owner, the flags are incorrectly displayed. In this arrangement you could not display another country’s flag since the flag poles are not of the same height which means the Italian flag is lower than the U.S. which international usage does not allow.
When do you fly a flag at half-staff?
By tradition, the general rule is that the nation’s flag should not be flown at half-staff except by presidential proclamation and is typically done in times of national grief; i.e., the death of a president.
However, there is no law prohibiting governors and mayors from making this decision. They often have done so to honor senior government officials, fallen police and fire fighters, members of the military from their communities and other prominent citizens. Likewise, private citizens and corporations have chosen to fly flags at half-staff on occasions they themselves deemed appropriate. However, I recommend this be done judiciously so have a policy or you will find yourself besieged by requests.
Protocol would suggest that when possible any and all laws, rules and local customs be followed. If your jurisdiction or organization has no specific guidelines about when it will fly flags at half-staff, we recommend that some be developed. Then, when the question arises during a time of stress or sorrow, you will have procedures designed to be practical, respectful, and made with due consideration of rank and precedence.
- Per the U.S. Flag Code, the U.S. flag shall also be displayed at half-staff on Memorial Day until noon, and then raised to full height
- Flags of other nations cannot be lowered to half-staff without the permission of those nations.
What’s the correct way to fly flags on vehicles?
Flags are usually displayed on vehicles during parades and processions, and may also be displayed on the vehicles of chiefs of state, heads of government and other high-ranking officials during visits. The U.S. or host nation’s flag should be displayed on the right fender, so that again, when the observer looks at the vehicle, the flag is on the far left or to its own right. The visitor’s flag or standard, if one is to be used, would be opposite, on the left front of the car, to the observer’s right. Make sure the flags are firmly attached.
What is a flag spreader?
A flag spreader is a device that clasps onto the flag pole to fully expand or “spread” a flag when displayed. These are sometimes used for indoor ceremonial presentations and are more commonly used by the military.
What is a standard?
Several senior U.S. and foreign government officials are entitled to personal flags, called standards. In the U.S. the President, Vice President and Secretary of State are among those. Standards may be displayed in the official’s office, and flown on official vehicles, airplanes, and ships.
How do you display the U.S. flag vertically?
To properly display the U.S. flag vertically, the union or stars should be at the top left from the viewer’s perspective. I was at a mall around the Fourth of July and was able to take these two photographs of shops almost right next to each other. The shop on the left got it wrong and the one on the right displayed it correctly. It helps to remember the “Stars and Stripes.” You should see the stars in the upper left hand corner—stars first, followed by stripes.
Can you display other countries’ flags vertically?
Some foreign flags can be displayed vertically, but each country has its own rules and practices. To ensure the proper display, contact a protocol office, the country’s consulate, embassy, or trade office for guidance.
How do you dispose of damaged flags?
Flags hold tremendous symbolism and deserve to be treated with the utmost respect even when they are worn, damaged and no longer suitable for display. It is recommended that unusable U.S. flags be destroyed privately. This may be done by burning or in another respectful manner. Some local Boy Scout troops and veterans’ organizations may be able to provide this service.
Years ago, when I was still chief of protocol for the city of Houston, I received a call from someone at the Venezuelan consulate general. A member of their community had been at a major local retail store, saw a frayed Venezuelan flag hanging as a display, and took offense. I was asked to contact the store. When I reached out to their communications director, whom I knew, he immediately looked into it. It seemed that one of their decorators had seen the flag at a sale, thought it was attractive, and bought it for one of their displays. No offense was intended. Once the matter was brought to his attention, the framed frayed flag was immediately removed and an apology was extended.
Lesson: properly dispose of damaged flags.
Where are flags available for rent or purchase?
Check with protocol offices or chambers of commerce. Some have flags you may borrow or rent for a minimal fee. They may also be able to recommend reputable flag vendors. There are some companies which have been in business for years and specialize in flags. These tend to have a higher level of knowledge about flags and flag protocol. Others may sell flags as one of many products, and may not be as reliable. When all else fails, it is usually easy to order flags online, but double-check your orders against official versions of the flags, because it sometimes happens that retailers confuse countries and send the wrong flags. Occasionally, flags of lower quality may have printing or color errors serious enough to make them unsuitable. You must also keep in mind that a flag you order to display alongside others must be of the same basic size and quality as the ones you already have. Ask your contacts in the other country, state or city to send you clear photos of the flags you need, check the images with multiple sources to make sure the flags have not changed recently, and check the order upon receipt.
Flag Faux Pas
Displaying another country’s flag on the same staff as the U.S. flag. International usage forbids the display of one nation’s flag above another’s at times of peace. The photo below was taken at a high school football game between a Houston team and its sister school from Canada. The school had only one flagpole. While the intention was good, to honor their Canadian friends, the protocol was wrong. Luckily for the school, no one took offense, but this protocol expert did note the mistake and added a photo her collection.
What’s wrong with this photo of the space shuttle and the Texas flag?
While Texans were proud to have the shuttle fly over our state, we were disappointed to see the Texas flag flown upside down. The white should be on top. Lesson learned? “Right side up” isn’t obvious for every flag. Double check, every time! Thanks to Jose Elizalde for sharing this photo.
Garza Protocol Associates provides links to resources that may be helpful. However, we have not verified all of the information they contain, and we recommend checking multiple sources for a more comprehensive perspective. Please let us know if you have a link to suggest, or if you find one of these is broken.
- The United States Flag: Federal Law Relating to Display and Associated Questions
- The “Flag Code” (U.S. Code Title 4, Chapter 1) is the federal law relating to the display of the U.S. flag and associated questions.
- Flags of the World – CIA: The World Factbook
- Flag Guys: An unaffiliated website, this flag vendor has compiled a useful collection of usage, history, and other flag information.
Garza Protocol has compiled the information on this site by referencing numerous resources: books, articles, consulting with people from the respective countries, as well as our own experience during travels to the countries or from dealings with numerous individuals from those countries. Remember that these are generalities. Practices change, and each individual may behave differently based on personal experience, background, and education so it is important to do your research. If you experienced something different or have an anecdote to share, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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